Biography of Harry Stack Sullivan

Harry Stack Sullivan was born in the small farming town of Norwich, New York, on February 21, 1892, the sole surviving child of poor Irish Catholic parents. His mother, Ella Stack Sullivan, was 32 when she married Timothy Sullivan and 39 when Harry was bom. She had given birth to two other sons, neither of whom lived past the first year. As a consequence, she pampered and protected her only child whose survival she knew was her last chance for motherhood. Harry's father, Timothy Sullivan, was a shy, withdrawn, and taciturn man who never developed a close relationship with his son until after his wife had died and Sullivan had become a prominent physician. Timothy Sullivan had been a farm laborer and a factory worker who moved to his wife's family farm outside the village of Smyrna, some 10 miles from Norwich, before Harry's third birthday. At about this same time, Ella Stack Sullivan was mysteriously absent from the home, and Sullivan was cared for by his maternal grandmother, whose Gaelic accent was not easily understood by the young boy. After more than a year's separation, Harry's mother—who likely had been hi a mental hospital—returned home, hi effect, Sullivan then had two women to mother him. Even after his grandmother died he continued to have two mothers because a maiden aunt then came to share in the child rearing duties.

Although both parents were of poor Irish-Catholic descent, his mother regarded the Stack family as socially superior to the Sullivans. Sullivan accepted the social supremacy of the Stacks over the Sullivans until he was a prominent psychiatrist developing an interpersonal theory that emphasized similarities among people rather than differences. He then realized the folly of his mother's claims.

As a preschool child Sullivan had neither friends nor acquaintances of his age. After beginning school he still felt like an outsider, being an Irish Catholic boy in a Protestant community. His Irish accent and quick mind made him unpopular with his classmates throughout his years of schooling hi Smyrna.

When Sullivan was 8V2 years old he formed a close friendship with a 13-year-old boy from a neighboring farm. This chum was Clarence Bellinger, who lived a mile beyond Harry hi another school district, but who was now beginning high school hi Smyrna. Although the two boys were not peers chronologically, they had much in common socially and intellectually. Both were retarded socially but advanced intellectually; both later became psychiatrists and neither ever married. The relationship between Harry and Clarence had a transforming effect on Sullivan's life. It awakened in him the power of intimacy, that is, the ability to love another who was more or less like himself. In Sullivan's mature theory of personality, he placed heavy emphasis on the therapeutic, almost magical power of an intimate relationship dur-

Chapter 8 Sullivan: Interpersonal Theory 213

ing the preadolescent years. This belief, along with many other Sullivanian hypotheses, seems to have grown out of his own childhood experiences.

Sullivan was mterested in books and science, not in farming. Although he was an only child growmg up on a farm that required much hard work, Harry was able to escape many of the chores by absentmindedly "forgetting" to do them. This ruse was successful because his indulgent mother completed them for him and allowed Sullivan to receive credit.

A bright student, Sullivan graduated from high school as valedictorian at age 16. He then entered Cornell University intending to become a physicist, although he also had an interest in psychiatry. His academic performance at Cornell was a disaster, however, and he was suspended after 1 year. The suspension may not have been solely for academic deficiencies. He got into trouble with the law at Cornell, possibly for mail fraud. He was probably a dupe of older, more mature students who used him to pick up some chemicals illegally ordered through the mail. In any event, for the next 2 years Sullivan mysteriously disappeared from the scene. Perry (1982) reported he may have suffered a schizophrenic breakdown at this time and was confined to a mental hospital. Alexander (1990), however, surmised that Sullivan spent this time under the guidance of an older male model who helped him overcome his sexual panic and who intensified his mterest in psychiatry. Whatever the answer to Sullivan's mysterious disappearance from 1909 to 1911, his experiences seemed to have matured him academically and possibly sexually.

In 1911, with only one very unsuccessful year of undergraduate work, Sullivan enrolled hi the Chicago College of Medicine and Surgery, where his grades, though only mediocre, were a great improvement over those he earned at Cornell. He finished his medical studies hi 1915 but did not receive his degree until 1917. Sullivan claimed that the delay was because he had not yet paid his tuition hi full, but Perry (1982) found evidence that he had not completed all his academic requirements by 1915 and needed, among other requirements, an internship. How was Sullivan able to obtain a medical degree if he lacked all the requirements? None of Sullivan's biographers has a satisfactory answer to this question. Alexander (1990) hypothesized that Sullivan, who had accumulated nearly a year of medically related employment, used his considerable persuasive abilities to convince authorities at Chicago College of Medichie and Surgery to accept that experience hi lieu of an internship. Any other deficiency may have been waived if Sullivan agreed to enlist hi the military. (The United States had recently entered World War I and was in need of medical officers.)

After the war Sullivan continued to serve as a military officer, first for the Federal Board for Vocational Education and then for the Public Health Service. However, this period in his life was still confusing and unstable, and he showed little promise of the brilliant career that lay just ahead (Perry, 1982).

In 1921, with no formal training in psychiatry, he went to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, DC, where he became closely acquahited with William Alanson White, one of America's best-known neuropsychiatrists. At St. Elizabeth, Sullivan had his first opportunity to work with large numbers of schizophrenic patients. While hi Washington, he began an association with the Medical School of the University of Maryland and with the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, Maryland. During this Baltimore period of his life, he conducted intensive studies of schizophrenia, which led to his first hunches about the importance of interpersonal relationships. In trying to make sense out of the speech of schizophrenic patients, Sullivan concluded that their illness was a means of coping with the anxiety generated from social and interpersonal environments. His experiences as a practicing clinician gradually transformed themselves mto the beginnings of an interpersonal theory of psychiatry.

Sullivan spent much of his time and energy at Sheppard selecting and training hospital attendants. Although he did little therapy himself, he developed a system in which nonprofessional but sympathetic male attendants treated schizophrenic patients with human respect and care. This innovative program gamed him a reputation as a clinical wizard. However, he became disenchanted with the political climate at Sheppard when he was passed over for a position as head of the new reception center that he had advocated. In March of 1930, he resigned from Sheppard.

Later that year, he moved to New York City and opened a private practice, hoping to enlarge his understanding of interpersonal relations by investigating non-schizophrenic disorders, especially those of an obsessive nature (Perry, 1982). Times were hard, however, and his expected wealthy clientele did not come in the numbers he needed to maintain his expenses.

On a more positive note, his residence in New York brought him into contact with several psychiatrists and social scientists with a European background. Among these were Karen Horney, Erich Fromm, and Frieda Fromm-Reichmann who, along with Sullivan, Clara Thompson, and others, formed the Zodiac group, an informal organization that met regularly over drinks to discuss old and new ideas hi psychiatry and the related social sciences. Sullivan, who had met Thompson earlier, persuaded her to travel to Europe to take a training analysis under Sandor Ferenczi, a disciple of Freud. Sullivan learned from all members of the Zodiac group, and through Thompson, and Ferenczi, his therapeutic technique was indirectly influenced by Freud. Sullivan also credited two other outstanding practitioners, Adolf Meyer and William Alanson White, as having had an hnpact on his practice of therapy. Despite some Freudian influence on his therapeutic technique, Sullivan's theory of interpersonal psychiatry is neither psychoanalytic nor neo-Freudian.

During his residence in New York, Sullivan also came under the influence of several noted social scientists from the University of Chicago, which was the center of American sociological study during the 1920s and 1930s. Included among them were social psychologist George Herbert Mead, sociologists Robert Ezra Park and W. I. Thomas, anthropologist Edward Sapir, and political scientist Harold Lasswell. Sullivan, Sapir, and Lasswell were primarily responsible for establishing the William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation hi Washington, DC, for the purpose of joining psychiatry to the other social sciences. Sullivan served as the first president of the foundation and also as editor of the foundation's journal, Psychiatry. Under Sullivan's guidance, the foundation began a training institution known as the Washington School of Psychiatry. Because of these activities, Sullivan gave up his New York practice, which was not very lucrative anyway, and moved back to Washington, DC, where he remained closely associated with the school and the journal.

In January 1949, Sullivan attended a meeting of the World Federation for Mental Health hi Amsterdam. While on his way home, January 14, 1949, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage hi a Paris hotel room, a few weeks short of his 57th birthday. Not uncharacteristically, he was alone at the time.

Chapter 8 Sullivan: Interpersonal Theory 215

On the personal side, Sullivan was not comfortable with his sexuality and had ambivalent feelings toward marriage (Perry, 1982). As an adult, he brought mto his home a 15-year-old boy who was probably a former patient (Alexander, 1990). This young man—James Inscoe—remained with Sullivan for 22 years, looking after his financial affairs, typing manuscripts, and generally running the household. Although Sullivan never officially adopted Jimmie, he regarded him as a son and even had his legal name changed to James I. Sullivan.

Beyond Biography Was Sullivan a homosexual? For yFmSy information on Sullivan's sexual orientation, see our website at —

Sullivan also had ambivalent attitudes toward his religion. Bom to Catholic parents who attended church only irregularly, he abandoned Catholicism early on. hi later life, his friends and acquaintances regarded him as nonreligious or even anti-Catholic, but to then surprise, Sullivan had written hito his will a request to receive a Catholic burial. Incidentally, this request was granted despite the fact that Sullivan's body had been cremated in Paris. His ashes were returned to the United States, where they were placed inside a coffin and received a full Catholic burial, complete with a requiem mass.

Sullivan's chief contribution to personality theory is his conception of developmental stages. Before turning to Sullivan's ideas on the stages of development, we will explain some of his unique terminology.

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